Ute Removal - Through the Milk Creek and Meeker Massacre

This continues the story of Ute removal posted earlier. The Ute had lost some of their land, bowing to pressure and bribery, but had managed to keep a sizable chunk of their land. Conflicts continued off and on with invading prospectors, but it amounted to no major conflict.

By May of 1878 the Northern Utes, now known as the White River Utes since their agency was along that river, received a new Indian Agent; Nathan Meeker. The White River Utes had four important leaders; Douglas, Jack, Colorow and Johnson, a Medicine Man. Along with Meeker all would play a major role in the events of 1879 and precipitate events that would lead to removal. The image at upper left  from an iIllustrated newspaper showing some of the Ute leaders from 1879; top left is Captain Jack, Susan is in the Middle, wife of Johnson and sister of Ouray. Middle left is Douglass, one of the few Native Americans to grow a mustache, and Ouray at middle left. Top right is Piah who was not directly involved. The bottom shows a cradleboard. Courtesy Western History, Z-4089.

When Colorado became a state the first governor was Frederic Pitikin. He was very much in favor of removing the Utes, being heavily influenced by the mining interest in the state, along with the railroad men who wanted to build a railroad from California to Denver, right through the Ute lands. Such a project could not be done due to the treaties with the Utes. Senator Teller was also under the influence of the miners, having been a lawyer who lobbied for mining interest. Both men argued constantly for the Utes to be moved.

Meeker wanted the Utes to become Christians and to farm but they preferred to hunt, so Meeker decided to force the issue. In early September 1879 Meeker’s argument came to a head. He decided to force them to give up their horses by plowing up their race ground. This threat was especially upsetting to the Utes not only because horse racing was an important part of their culture, but plowing was seen as a desecration to the land. An unidentified Ute man shot at an agency plowman to stop the plowing. This led to a heated council with the chiefs. What happened next is subject to debate. Meeker says after the meeting Johnson confronted him and physically threw him into a hitching post, aggravating an injured shoulder. Johnson said he did not throw him but admitted to some fisticuffs.

Either way Meeker panicked. He wrote a letter to Fort Freed Steele in Wyoming, near Rawlins, the nearest military post. The commandant was Major Thomas T. Thornburgh. Meeker asked for military protection. Thornbugh left the fort on September 21 with around 140 officers and enlisted men. 

As the army detail crossed the Yampa River they met Jack, who demanded to know what the soldiers intended. Thornburgh continued his march and Jack rode back to the agency. As they got closer to Milk Creek, the accepted boundary of the reservation, Thornburgh met up with some civilian teamsters who told them that they had met with Colorow, who insisted that if the troops crossed the creek it would be war. Thornburgh shrugged off the warning and continued towards Milk Creek. At the agency this was met with dread. Memories of Sand Creek were still fresh and there was a fear of a general massacre. Jack and Colorow led warriors to ambush the major.

photograph Colorow
Colorow helped lead the battle of Milk Creek, shown here near the end of his life in a photo by W. M Chamberlin, 1880, courtesy Western History, X-19257


On September 29 Thornburgh and his men crossed Milk Creek. They detected armed Utes and began to advance in skirmish formation, ready for a fight. Jack had fought with the US army and knew exactly what a skirmish formation meant. He could speak English, along with several of the Utes. Shooting started the battle of Milk Creek. Thornburgh, while riding to the rear, was shot dead by a Ute.

News of the battle reached the agency quickly and Douglas led an attack on the agency employees, killing eight men, including Meeker. The agency was burned and the Utes fled, taking Mrs. Meeker, her daughter and another wife and child.

Milk Creek developed into a siege as the army dug in behind wagons. Messengers escaped that night, one covering 140 miles in over 25 hrs, changing horses. October 2nd a detachment from the 9th Cavalry (the famed Buffalo Soldiers) arrived to help the besieged soldiers. On October 5th the soldiers were relieved by a larger force. Thirty medals of honor were awarded, including one black sergeant. The Ute honored their warriors but talked little of it for fear of reprisals. Thirteen soldiers were killed; Ute casualties are harder to assess.

Milk Creek and the Meeker Massacre, as the agency killings were called, made national headlines. The captives were eventually released following negotiations. Calls for the Utes removal or extermination reach a fevered pitch in the newspapers. ‘The Utes Must Go’ became a rallying cry more than ever. Douglas was later imprisoned. Jack was originally let go but was killed later in Wyoming by US soldiers following a scuffle. Colorow died of natural causes.

photo: Nathan Meeker
Nathan Meeker, White River Ute Agent. His body was found with a stake through his mouth so he could tell no more lies. Courtesy Western History, RMN-041-1413


Lengthy negotiations followed. In the end it was agreed a majority of Ute men must agree to leave their lands. At first it was believed that they would be moved to the area of modern Grand Junction. But Otto Mears investigated the area and declared it unfit for agriculture, realizing it was in fact good for that and wanted to keep it. Ouray died of Bright’s Disease during the negotiations and this threw the whole thing into doubt, without him Kaneache from the Southern Utes began to advocate for resisting removal. However, he was struck and killed by lightning. Seeing this as an omen more Ute agreed to removal, but not enough. Mears resorted to bribery, paying Ute men to sign the treaty.

The land they would be moved to was the Uintah Agency in Utah, but only the White River Utes. The agency was renamed Ouray and Uintah Agency for the great chief. August 28, 1881 was the day of final removal, the Utes were escorted out by the cavalry.

Today only the Southern Utes remain in Southern Colorado, on the Southern and Ute Mountain Reservations, where each year they perform the Bear Dance to welcome spring back. Milk Creek and the Meeker massacre, though international headlines in their day, were forgotten, except on the Ute reservations and the lands where it happened.

Battle of Milk Creek
Oil painting by Robert Lindneux showing the battle of Milk Creek. The army is in their wagon circle while Utes attack a civilian pack train. The civilians fled to join the Army in the encampments. The terrain portrayed is correct for the area, a dry mountain meadow. Courtesy Western History, CHS-X20088


Blog post by Brian Johnson, Hampden Branch Library.

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